There's a book on my shelf squeezed between East of Eden and Fahrenheit 451. The cover is green like a tennis court and when you run your hand over the surface it feels like a tennis ball. The first two pages show a girl alone in the wilderness and if you turn down the lights, shine your phone on the pages, you can see hidden messages. The book is titled Legacy and the Queen, written by Annie Matthew. Created by Kobe Bryant.
When Jimmy Kimmel asked Kobe why he put so much detail into the cover and what did the publisher say when he made these demands, Kobe replied:
"Well, they didn't say anything, because I'm the publisher." The crowd laughed and applauded. "But you're right, generally publishing houses wouldn't make a book that's that high quality, you know what I mean? So expesnive to make. But I feel like it's very important for kids to have a sense of validation. You pick this book up and it's like this book has been cared for and it feels like we matter, as children, we matter. Here's a book we put a lot of thought into."
This book was one of the first things I thought about on Sunday afternoon, January 26th. I was standing in a messy kitchen. Dishes piled up in the sink. I was trying to bring some sense of order back to our place before Monday morning. I picked up my phone to see 10 or 20 new texts all about the helicopter crash that killed Kobe and Gianna Bryant, John, Keri, and Alyssa Altobelli, Christina Mauser, Ara Zobayan, and Sarah and Payton Chester. My first thought was like so many others: Alright, this can't be real. Rumors of celebrity deaths happen. I remember one about Sly Stallone a couple years back. I was clinging to hopes of fake news or video deep fakes, anything to swoop in and erase this story.
But the websites were getting more and more credible. There was footage on TV. And as the news finally started to sink in, I wasn't picturing Kobe Bryant the basketball player. I was thinking of the book that feels like a tennis ball and his Oscar-winning short film, Dear Basketball.
What was so hard about that afternoon and the two weeks since then is this gut-wrenching feeling that Kobe Bryant was just getting started. He had a second act that was going to exceed his NBA career, as impossible as that sounds.
And if the story ended there, only Kobe in the helicopter, that would be tragedy enough. Like losing a musician or actor/actress right in their prime; missing out on all of the things they were going to create. But what made the story even harder was losing his daughter, Gianna. And all the things she was going to do. And then when you read about the Altobellis or Christina Mauser, the stories about Ara Zobayan, Sarah and Payton Chester, there's just no silver lining to any of it. The more you dive into this story, the worse it gets. The harder it is to process. It just hurts to think about.
I normally post on Monday mornings, but there was no way I could gather my thoughts in 12 hours. A week wasn't enough either. And here I am still struggling with what to write today, because 1) There's so much to cover and 2) I didn't want this to feel like those initial reports, when it was "Kobe, his daughter, and seven others." All nine of the lives, each one of their stories are equally important, so I feel a little guilty only focusing in one Kobe's. But I want to share with you this Aristotle, King Solomon, Dostoyevsky-esque chapter Kobe was embarking on as a philosopher and how these lessons he was teaching went far beyond basketball and, in my opinion, will be studied and replayed for hundreds of years.
Building the Foundation
One story Kobe often referenced was a summer basketball league when he was 10-11 years old. Apparently he went the entire summer without scoring a single basket.
"I was terrible. Awful. I had these big knee pads on, because I was growing real fast. I have socks all the way up here. Skinny as hell. And I scored, not a free throw, not a nothing. Not a lucky shot. Not a breakaway layup. Zero points. I remember crying about it and being upset about it. My father just gave me a hug and said, 'Listen, whether you score zero or score 60, I'm gonna love you no matter what.'"
And what Kobe says next is similar to the Tim Keller line I referenced in "Just Have Fun Out There." Hearing this "I love you no matter what" affirmation isn't freeing because now you can say, "Ok, sweet, I don't have to try any more." Instead it gives you the freedom to try even harder because there's no fear of failure.
"Now that is the most important thing you can say to a child," Kobe continues. "Because from there I was like, okay, that gives me all the confidence in the world to fail. I have the security there. But, to hell with that, I'm scoring 60. Let's go. Right? And from there I just went to work. I stayed with it. I kept practicing, kept practicing, kept practicing."
And within six or seven years, he went from not scoring a basket against kids his own age in a summer basketball league to playing for the Los Angeles Lakers fresh out of high school.
Twenty seasons later, it was fitting for his final game to end with a 60-point performance.
Learning from Failure
Another story Kobe often referenced was his rookie season hositing up five airballs in a playoff game against the Utah Jazz.
For Kobe, he didn't dwell on the public humiliation of having this performance in front of millions of people. Instead he tried to figure out what exactly went wrong.
"Ok, so why did those airballs happen?" Kobe snaps his fingers. "Got it. So high school, year before, we played 35 games max. Spaced out. Week to rest. NBA is back to back to back. I didn't have the legs. If you look at the shots, every shot was on line, but every shot was short. I gotta get stronger. Train differently. Tailor my training to an 82-game season. So that when the playoffs come around, my legs are stronger and the ball gets there. I shot airballs cuz my legs weren't there. Next year they'll be there. That was it. Done."
Failure is an opportunity to get better. And when you think of Kobe, you think of someone who hates to lose, but his answer when asked about losing was kind of surprising.
"It's exciting. Because it means you have different ways to get better. There are certain things you can figure out, that you can take advantage of. Certain weaknesses that were exposed that you need to shore up. It sucks to lose. But at the same time, there are answers there if you just look at them."
So hard to do, whether it's in basketball, at work, in a relationship, trying something new, this idea of letting the losses become exciting and the failures not being something to be embarrassed about but instead finding the answers in the losses for improvement, these were lessons I was working on, especially in the last few years.
Loving the Craft
Kobe's lessons didn't end with, "Therefore, if you try as hard as you can, pour everything into it, you'll end up like me - rich, famous, accomplished, etc. Your dreams will all come true." Instead what Kobe was preaching was the process itself. The craft becomes the dream. The workouts. Giving everything you have to something. The process becomes more rewarding than the destination.
That's what made the Dear Basketball movie so special, Kobe reached the end of his career and what was most important was the love of the game.
Family is Most Important
There was one thing more important to Kobe than basketball, especially in the later years. Kobe the family man took center stage and became his main source of pride, joy, and identity.
"What brings you the most joy right now?" an interviewer asked.
"Being with my family. That is, man. That is the most fun. It's just, you know, hanging out with them all summer. Being able to do things I ordinarily couldn't do, because of training, because of seasons, stuff like that. So being around them, watching Bianca grow up. There were a lot of things I missed with Natalia and Gianna because I was playing. So being there every day with them is so much fun, man. It brings me the most joy."
And, again, that's what makes this whole thing so hard to process. The reason Kobe started flying in a helicopter in the first place was to avoid Los Angeles traffic and make it to his daughters' events. He was headed to Gianna's game to coach her and be with the team. He was doing everything right and there was so much ahead, for both of them. The event will always be a tragedy and the whole thing has me feeling like Sam Gamgee in Lord of the Rings; asking Gandalf, "Will everything sad come untrue?"
The one thing I keep coming back to, as a small flicker of light, is the power of story. Hearing all of the Kobe Bryant stories these last two weeks, finding new interviews, seeing the 24-second shot clock tributes, or the first game back in Staples Center, LeBron's speech, Usher singing Amazing Grace, the stories of the person and what they meant to other people, those things can never be taken away. Stories keep the memory alive for years to come. For everyone. I saw Outside the Lines run a great piece on Coach John Altobelli and his family. Christina Mauser, Ara Zobayan, Sarah and Payton Chester, their stories won't be as wide-spread as Kobe's, but to their loved ones, they are just as much of a hero. The loss is just as big.
Stories don't suddenly make it all easier. They don't erase the tragedy. And everything sad hasn't come untrue. But they help. As the stories continue to be told, the inspiration and impact of the nine people will continue to spread and live on.
I'll be back next week with a new post on Monday morning. Also have a new newsletter going up tomorrow on Long Overdue. If you'd like to subscribe to the blog, just enter your email in the box below. Thanks for stopping by and see you next week!